OPERA TAVERN:A COVENT GARDEN OVERTURE
I'm usually not a huge fan of the small plate way of eating but on my recent visits to London's Famous West End I've found that I don't always want to book ahead for a full-blown 3-course meal. A few small plates sometimes suits me better and there's now such a concentration of good places that serves them that it becomes an easy way to pop into a few of an evening. Think Oysters at Wright Brothers, Zakuski at Bob Bob Ricard, Gelato from Gelupo.
You can now add Opera Tavern to that list, the latest place from those nice people who also gave us the popular (well I can never get into them) Salt Yard and Dehesa.
I visited on their first night when there was a 50% discount on the food (while we iron out any creases) although the place seemed to be up and running more or less as I expect it to be henceforth.
There were a few little crimps: some room temperature Manzanilla was changed for some of equal warmth. A middle class woe for sure and not very important except in the course of a vaguely Iberian meal. One or two dishes didn’t quite hit the mark but then I did order quite a few. I also felt there was some timidity to the seasoning and spicing - but that’s easily corrected.
Opera Tavern is a two floor affair and I sat in the small dining room upstairs. It was nice enough but it looked a lot more fun downstairs in the bar area. This how eating tapas should be experienced but very rarely is in this country – we don’t mind a bit of hustle and bustle when boozing but we won’t stand for it (literally) when eating.
It might be advancing years but I'm finding a lot menus a bit confusing these days. Used to putting together a standard three courses I’m a bit lost with the small plate scene. Just how much does one order? Having just the prices to go on (more expensive = bigger) I decided to order dishes in small groups and stop when I was stuffed. It also meant no food sitting around getting cold on the table if it all came en masse.
A couple of terrines: one of Lamb and one of Duck and FG didn’t really rock my socks. Is Lamb Breast a good basis for a cold terrine? Not on this showing and it had the same problems as with the Duck and Foie gras: a slightly claggy texture and none of that unctuous mouthfeel that you get with a good one.
The Scotch Egg was perfectly cooked with a soft boiled egg interior and a crisp breaded exterior but I not convinced the veal added anything and may have just contributed to blanding it out a bit. Crisp Iberico Pigs year were great though, being both crisp and porky and the preparation - as fine tendrils of ear - was actually an improvement over the Spanish norm.
The mini Iberico Pork and Foie Gras Burger was a winner too. The patty came medium rare and was topped with delicate little onion rings and was a rich, meaty mouthful. Nom Nom as the kids say. Pickled Guindilla peppers added crunch and an acidic bite. It was so good I did think seriously about ordering a second.
Crispy Squid is a bit of a cliché and seems to be on every menu though not many can pull off the trick of getting it right. It was a good attempt at Opera Tavern with excellent, un-chewy squid but I found it a tad greasy (oil not hot enough?) so you tasted more of the frying than the squid. It also meant I still don’t know what Sea Purslane tastes like.
I liked the Mackerel Escabeche with roasted Beets and Hazelnuts which combine some interesting textures and sweetness of the beets working well against the sourness of the marinade. The fish was a little more fishy than I prefer, as Mackerel tends to be whenever you eat it any distance from the sea.
After fishy treats, back to the meaty ones. Pincho Morunos are more commonly little cubes of pork on skewers. Here they’re also made with Onglet and with Lamb and it Kidney. You'll probably do as I did and order all three. The taste was great if a little diffuse and there was a ‘wetness’ to them which was odd as they had probably just come off the grill. Possibly the porcini had leaked a bit. The spicing could have been kicked up a notch too - small bites like this should have some impact. Still enjoyed them though.
I didn't fancy any of the puddings so the nice staff kindly put together one for me: a lovely Clementine Sorbet with a tremendous Milk Ice Cream. The ice cream being one of the nicest I've had recently.
As with all small plate operations calculating the total price can involve some complex mental arithmetic which usually ends with a gross under-estimation. This will be slightly tempered by the fact most people will not be as big a greedy guts as me and will actually have friends they can share their food (and bill) with.
In any case you’ll still come out of the Opera Tavern well-fed and watered and although it is a chain of sorts it’s one with a more personal touch that stands well above the tourist-targeted dross in the immediate vicinity.